NPR aired a brief report yesterday on recent research into “framing,” the manner in which Americans make policy arguments. According to the researcher, Americans are less likely to respond to appeals to the common good or the public interest than we are to appeals to individual rights and benefits. Our Constitutional emphasis on individual rights, in this analysis, has led to a culture in which policies are evaluated through a highly individualized prism–what we might call a “what’s in it for me” approach.
If this research is correct, Americans have confused a healthy distrust of majoritarianism with an unhealthy disdain for the common good. Those aren’t the same thing. A distrust of the preferences of popular majorities–the “passions of the mob”–is built into our national DNA, and we are right to guard against violations of individual rights that can result. But that is different from civic behavior that elevates personal preferences and immediate gratification over consideration of the good of the community.
The discussion of mass transit is an example. Those who are opposed to a tax for transit are not arguing that transit would be bad for the community–an argument I disagree with, but a legitimate basis for opposition. They are arguing that they don’t want to pay for it, because they don’t believe it will benefit them personally. (Actually, as I pointed out, we all benefit in numerous ways–tangible and intangible–when we live in a community with a better quality of life, but that’s a different argument.)
The researcher on NPR recommended that policy arguments be framed to appeal to the individual–this is what is in it for you!–rather than with appeals to the common good. Perhaps that advice is strategically sound.
But what does it say about us as citizens?